Halt and Catch Fire’s Sad Ballad of the Future

AMC’s tech drama, which has become must-watch television, airs its third-season finale on Tuesday.


Despite being set 30 years in the past, Halt and Catch Fire is a show about the future. Its characters, all part of the 1980s personal-computing revolution, are constantly trying to figure out what their pioneering work is pointing toward. Their conflicts often hinge on their struggles to communicate—which is made all the more ironic by the fact that they’re laying the groundwork for a world where everyone can speak to each other instantly, despite being more polarized than ever. Since its debut in 2014, Halt and Catch Fire has been the rare period drama that perfectly leverages its era to talk about the current one, and its third season has been a particular marvel in that regard.

The show has been a marginal hit for AMC for each of its three years on air—critically respected while maintaining a tiny audience—but it was happily renewed for a fourth (and final) season on Monday. That means viewers can watch the two-hour, season-three finale Tuesday night without worrying about the fascinating narrative being left incomplete. Without spoiling anything, I can say the episode makes an audacious storytelling decision for the series that promises to pay off magnificently. The finale is a great capper to a season that explored the dark side of start-up success, and the clash of big-picture tech thinking with cold financial realities, in a way that felt both deeply personal and incredibly prescient.

Halt and Catch Fire began its run as a Mad Men of the 1980s, with Lee Pace playing Joe MacMillan, a Steve Jobsian tech renegade who’s full of ideas but lacks even basic coding skills.  The series initially seemed enamored of Joe MacMillan as a typical tortured male protagonist, but the show’s creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have since upended the stereotype of the haunted genius who barks mysterious aphorisms at the people around him and always proves his naysayers wrong. This season took that creative shift to its logical extreme, building Joe up to messianic levels of fame before reducing him to nothing.

Though he began the series working with the other main characters, Joe eventually became estranged from them all. He started the third season as the head of a tech corporation hawking anti-virus software to new PC users, warning them of the dangers of the connected world. His plan was to offer the software for free to hook customers, with the intention of up-charging them later—a strategy that has since become routine. Joe’s speechifying about a grand programming rebellion drew the devotion of Ryan Ray (Manish Dayal), a new character who became Joe’s eager stooge, lapping up his vague proclamations and frustratingly trying to imitate his aloof personality. But where Joe could impress boardrooms through sheer force of will, Ryan always seemed more foolish, even as his coding work turned Joe’s ideas into reality.

Eventually, Ryan became so enamored, and Joe’s relationship with his corporate overlords became so adversarial, that Ryan illegally released the anti-virus software’s code to the public. Assuming he’d be rewarded for his cavalier approach, Ryan ended up facing arrest, and a horrified Joe tried to convince him to turn himself in to the police. Instead, in last week’s episode he committed suicide, leaving behind a note that spoke hopefully of the future that Joe’s philosophies, and the approaching internet revolution, envisioned. “It’s a huge danger, a gigantic risk,” Ryan intoned in a posthumous voice-over. “But it’s worth it. If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won’t destroy us. It won’t leave us, in the end, so totally alone.” It was a tragic realization: Ryan still expressed optimism for the future, even as his efforts to jump toward it left him dead.

The finale thus sees Joe in a fully humbled state, robbed of his powers, with the rest of the cast similarly scattered. Parallel to Joe’s breakdown, the third season charted the rapid rise and disintegration of Mutiny, the company created by the show’s female leads. Founded as an online-gaming forum, Mutiny evolved to reflect the beginnings of social networking on the internet, embracing instant messaging and adding a marketplace that was reminiscent of an early eBay or Craigslist. But as Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) saw things take off, the former started fearing that the independent spirit of her web community was being lost to marketing opportunities, while the latter pressed to go public quickly and capitalize on their buzz.

Cameron and Donna’s close relationship has become the emotional backbone of the series, and the decision to pivot from gloomy tech bros to upstart female entrepreneurship was what made Halt and Catch Fire’s second season stand out. The third has been tougher to watch, and even more emotionally involving, as Cameron and Donna grew more distant and eventually dissolved their business partnership. Rather than patronize the viewer with a simple tale of success, sisterhood, and girl power, Cantwell and Rogers dug into their differences and the irony of their communications breakdown, and the underlying challenges of being women in a heavily male industry.

Cameron, an introverted, prickly hacker by nature, had the same blind certitude about her ideas as Joe, but she struggled to get them across without seeming “difficult,” even as Joe’s stubbornness was hailed by the press as brilliance. Donna, a more business-minded sort who struggled to fit Mutiny into a traditional Silicon Valley mold, was undone by her eagerness to vault it into the big leagues by taking it public, which backfired after a disastrous initial public offering. The finale sees the entire group trying to rebuild, working together to try and monetize the NSFNet (a government program that ended up being a crucial building block of the World Wide Web), but it’s unsparingly brutal about the damage done, personally and professionally, to their former partnerships.

That Halt and Catch Fire’s fourth season will be its last is bittersweet news. Considering what happens in the season-three finale, it makes sense that there’s only one big chapter left in the overarching story, but it’s sad to think that a series this good has struggled to even stay on the air for its entire run. Still, this is a show that was promising in its first season, delivered on that promise in season two, and then only got better this year, to the point where declaring it TV’s best drama no longer feels like a wincingly hot take. All Halt and Catch Fire needs to do now is find a satisfying conclusion, as its technology catches up to the present day. Given the ambition and craft on display in Tuesday’s finale, viewers shouldn’t expect to be disappointed.